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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

20 July 2018

A 1930s pamphlet gives Malcolm Guite an insight into George Herbert

I HAVE in my hands a little pamphlet, printed on thick, cream-coloured paper, its borders brown and faded now, but the beautiful letter-press of the lines on its cover as clear as ever: Words and Verses spoken in the Garden of Bemerton Rectory, near Salisbury, in the afternoon of Tuesday June 6th, 1933.

And on the inside of that cover, in pencil, is a signed note from the author of those words: “For Charles and Janet Ashbee, from John Masefield. Christmas 1933.”

Just holding the pamphlet makes me feel as though I were there in George Herbert’s garden, gathered with the then Poet Laureate and his friends on the 300th anniversary of Herbert’s death, as they breathed his poems afresh into the summer air.

Masefield, in his remarks, seems as much enamoured of the man as of the poetry, and he draws as much on The Country Parson as on the poems themselves. Most of what he says is taken from Izaak Walton’s famous The Life of Mr George Herbert, but he gives one strikingly original insight, which I have never seen anywhere else. Perhaps knowing that Herbert himself loved and collected proverbs, Masefield draws on an American proverb for insight into Herbert’s life and work, and says:

There is a very good American proverb. I know not who made it. . . When lifting, get underneath. I have often thought of it, and I think of it now as the secret of George Herbert’s power upon men. He did not pour unction from above, he wound down into the hearts of his parishioners and built a foundation there, wooing each heart to each truth, explaining and giving beauty to each rule and rite, and making it significant to his hearers, persuading them of it all, till none could have held away.

This gets right to the heart of Herbert’s own poetic mastery, but it also gets to the heart of his Master; and, if Herbert had known this proverb, I think he would have applied it, in a poem, to Christ himself.

For the whole self-emptying of Christ in the incarnation — and even more in the Passion, and the descent into Hell — is the tale of how God does not give unction or instruction from above, but comes down into our humanity, gets underneath with us, underneath the weight and the burden, lifting it in us and with us and for us. It is not above, but underneath, that we feel, in their strength, the everlasting arms.

The pamphlet came to me as a gift from a friend and reader of this column, who is the grandson of the man to whom Masefield wrote the dedication. He enclosed a brief note for me, saying: “I feel this little curio ought to be in the hands of a poet in Herbert’s tradition, so I hope you will accept it.”

I was glad indeed to accept it, and am glad to belong to that tradition, however distant in time and talent from Herbert himself. But holding this lovely leaflet, with all its history, I felt closer. To have such a thing in one’s hands is to receive something that will never come from an ebook or a flat screen.

So once more I lift the little pamphlet from my desk, touching its creamy paper, and find myself, in Seamus Heaney’s telling phrase, “gleaning the unsaid off the palpable”.

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